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Words Have Power

by Elizabeth PapautskySurvivor, Breast CancerSeptember 20, 2023View more posts from Elizabeth Papautsky

Research shows that the statement “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is untrue. Words not only influence how we feel but how we experience the world around us—our reality. They can lift us up or bring us down and even cause harm (e.g. bullying).

Thus, they can be a source of great power, but also, of incredible disempowerment.

One of the ways that we can define our human-ness is based on the potential to impact and be impacted by words. When I reflect on which roles make me feel human, I can think of a few—daughter, wife, mother, professional. But patient is not one of them. According to Neuberger (1999), the term patient comes from the Latin word, to suffer or to tolerate patiently the interventions of the outside expert. As an object of someone else’s actions in clinical settings, I often feel disempowered by others’ words.

I’m not alone—it is unusual to feel human in the role of a patient. So when I do, it stands out.

A few months ago, I had my sixth cancer-related surgery. A reconstruction revision, necessary to resolve the damage from breast cancer treatment—the damage that many survivors live with quietly. Making the decision to proceed with this surgery was difficult. The truth is that for previous surgeries, I felt unheard, unanswered, and worse yet, dismissed by my care team. The feeling of being alone (and even unsafe) was overwhelming and unbearable. The empowerment that I believed to hold inherently was stripped away in seemingly avoidable and unnecessary ways.

My new surgeon meant it when she said, “I will take care of you.” Rather than rushing out of the door, she explained, she answered, and she asked. She made me feel human, rather than a case.

During recovery, I began to reflect on my response to these different situations—the impact of words both said and unsaid. Coincidently, I came upon an article on the word ‘abracadabra’—the magic word. Theories suggest that it derives from Aramaic or Hebrew (I will create as I have spoken) and is connected to the belief that we speak words to create the reality that we seek. Wait, are we still talking about magic? This seemingly irrelevant piece of information was somehow just the thing to tie this all together. The power of the spoken word!

As children, we may believe in the magic of abracadabra. If you are religious, you may put words out into the world as prayer and wish to be heard. As partners, parents, friends, professionals, we speak and hear words that serve to connect or disconnect, comfort or hurt—to inform and create a reality by influencing not just emotions, but behaviors.

The words that we hear as patients in even a short clinical encounter are the words that we go home with, and some echo in our heads for days or even years. They may play a role in the decisions we make—I put off that sixth surgery despite pain, discomfort, and lopsided breasts.

In pain, in fear, in vulnerability…words matter.

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